By David Walsh
In the postwar period, America became the dominant capitalist power, taking into itself all the contradictions of the world system, and proved unable to coexist with an honest and critical cinema. Thus, the McCarthyite witch-hunts, the blacklist, the illegalization of anti-capitalist views or serious criticism in the cinema. Criticism to the bone, criticism of private property and American global ambitions, and the criminality of the ruling elite, became impermissible. But even then, in the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s, films that obviously opposed McCarthyism appeared—High Noon, Kiss Me Deadly, Johnny Guitar, perhaps Allan Dwan’s Silver Lode and others. It’s an intensely complex process.
Why has there been such a terrible falling off in American cinema? I’ve suggested some elements of the explanation, but I would like to make that more specific, if only briefly. Again, the present cinema is not simply a nightmare, nor is television or popular music. We’re not beginning from zero; the events of the past century have not occurred for nothing.
I don’t believe, however, that any objective comparison of films from the period 1930-1955, let’s say, and the past 15 years or so would work to the advantage of the latter, in terms of texture, depth, seriousness, even social insight.
This is clearly not a technical problem. Cinema has made great strides. No doubt the freshness of the medium made a difference in those earlier years, but color film, video, digital technologies, the Internet, are relatively recent innovations. Why has the content of films, that living complex of moods and ideas, deteriorated and become so unenlightening, so uninspiring, so generally trivial?
Goethe writes that “Literature deteriorates only to the extent that people deteriorate.” How do we explain the deterioration in those making American cinema?
Jean Mitry says, “It is indisputable that the photographic image is always the consequence of a certain interpretation.” If this is so, and undoubtedly it is, then the question becomes: why have the interpretations weakened? What has become of those doing the interpretations? Why are they seeing the world less deeply, less richly, less evocatively?
Another approach might be: under what historical and intellectual conditions do images become more dense, more complicated, more textured, more highly charged with meaning? Is this something that can happen by accident? Does the filmmaker simply stumble on important images and truths? Does the result of his or her efforts have something to do with the general social situation?
To examine this fully in the context of Hollywood would require a lengthy investigation of what gave rise to the film industry, which is far beyond this discussion.
I will argue for this: that what was best in the American film industry emerged in large measure out of world culture and politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, culture and politics in which the socialist labor movement was a prominent element.
In an overview of the San Francisco film festival in 1996, I wrote the following: “The critical-minded culture built up from the last third of the nineteenth century…was the crucible in which were formed the artistic geniuses of the first decades of this century.
“The artists may not have agreed with the Marxists about the contradictions of capitalism, but there was a general, instinctive acknowledgment by the most insightful intellectuals in Paris, Berlin, London, Vienna, Budapest and, of course, Moscow, that the existing society was on its way out and thought had to be given to the cultural problems of the future human organization. Anyone who doubts that this has relevance to the American film industry need only consider the following list of filmmakers—all of whom worked in Hollywood—who were born or raised in Germany, Austria or Hungary between 1885 and 1907: Erich von Stroheim, Michael Curtiz, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, William Dieterle, Josef von Sternberg, Douglas Sirk, Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, Max Ophuls, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Fred Zinnemann.” Not an insignificant group.
This is by no means simply a question of left-wing filmmakers or writers, but since that history has been so buried in the official version of Hollywood’s history, it’s probably best to make some reference to their existence. Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner in Radical Hollywood and Brian Neve in Film and Politics in America, among others, have documented some of this usefully.
The Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression had a shattering impact on the American population, as elsewhere, including artists and intellectuals. All the myths and claims about the free enterprise system were called into question virtually overnight.